NEVER BEFORE HAS THE U.S. had a better slate in the men’s 5000; not just the returning Olympic silver medalist, but also a solid mix of veterans and newcomers, many of whom could make the Tokyo final on a good day.
It speaks to the growing American depth in the event that even though ’20 was a non-season for many, it still took an impressive 13:17.15 for Eastern Michigan alum Willy Fink to make No. 10 on the yearly national list.
The Olympic standard is currently set at 13:13.50 and there are 16 active Americans (see sidebar) who have PRs better than that. Never has the competition been so fierce for a 5K team spot than it will be next summer. (Continued below)
That being said, the question for many fans will be whether the fierce domestic competition will drive those at the top to be competitive internationally. In the past 4 years only a pair have World Ranked in the event: Paul Chelimo and now-retired-from-the-track Bernard Lagat.
The Bowerman Conundrum
No team has it better—or tougher—than the Nike Bowerman TC, where 9 of the U.S. men who have a PR faster than the standard are training and at least 5 are aiming at the 3 team spots.
“In this situation,” says Woody Kincaid, “on this team, we’re all going for the same thing. We all want an Olympic medal. At the end of the day, you want to make the team. And right now, at least two of us aren’t going to make the team in the event we want to make it in.”
He continues, “I honestly feel the guys are pretty happy to see everyone else succeed. If Grant [Fisher] beats me or Ryan [Hill] beats me, that’s the second-best situation. I really don’t want to lose to someone else [who’s not a Bowerman runner].” He pauses, then adds with a laugh, “I don’t have the hate for Grant and Ryan that I have for the other guys.”
How does this play out for BTC coach Jerry Schumacher, who will be advising multiple athletes racing against each other for team spots? He says, “Our job as a coaching staff is to put each athlete in the best position possible to be the best athlete they can be. Then we let them go out there and race and let the chips fall where they may.”
But what will be going through his mind during the last lap of the Trials 5K? “It’s got to be tough for him,” speculates Fisher. “I guess he has no control over what we do on the last lap, but it’s got to be cool to know you have 6 guys in your stable that can make this team; it’s very unusual for one coach to have that many options. I’m sure race days are pretty entertaining to Jerry.”
Paul Chelimo: Not only is he the fastest current contender with his 12:57.55 best from ’18, Chelimo, who will be 30 at the Trials, is the silver medalist from the last Olympics. He’s dead-set on the 5000 next summer, but is also training to come back in the 10,000 at the Trials if he needs to. “The 10K is just a bonus,” he says, “I’ll see how it plays out.”
Woody Kincaid: This late bloomer, now 28, surprised the track world with his 12:58.10 in ’19. A one-shot wonder? Not likely—this season, despite taking his foot off the gas a bit in anticipation of a buildup going into the ’21 Olympic year, he ran bests at 1500 (3:37.36) and 3000 (7:47.04). Clearly, being healthy agrees with him.
Lopez Lomong: Finally healthy, the reigning national champion is riding a hot streak at age 35, and hit a PR of 13:00.13 in ’19 before he went to Doha to place 7th in the 10,000 with a PR 27:04.72. He had said all along his focus was on the 10K last year. This time around, the 5K seems to be on the table. Says teammate Grant Fisher, “He’s an anomaly. On paper, he shouldn’t be PRing at his age. But he’s running faster than ever and still has the speed.”
Hassan Mead: The Minnesota alum has been one of the most reliable Americans in this event. Since running his best of 13:02.80 in ’14, he has made the Olympic final and last year’s WC final. Now competing for the Oregon TC Elite, the 29-year-old vet declined an interview but said earlier this year, “I’m good at it, and I keep doing it, and the day I’m no longer good at it or I’m not hanging with the top then I think I’ll let someone else come in.”
Eric Jenkins: Several of the runners we talked to warned that if healthy, Oregon alum Jenkins poses a real threat. His best of 13:05.85 came from a ’17 indoor race. His 1500 speed is real at 3:35.94 (’16) and he has shown he can kick effectively. In the last Trials he placed 4th, missing the team by just 0.06 after a 53.40 last lap brought him within diving distance of Chelimo. The next year he made the Worlds team but a torn plantar fascia gave him problems in ’19. An indoor 13:10.07 in February indicated his recovery had gone well.
Ryan Hill: A veteran who will be 31 next summer, Hill has experience aplenty, having made World 5000 finals in ’13 and ’15. He placed 5th in the ’12 Trials coming out of NC State and 6th in ’16 as a pro coached by Schumacher. His 13:05.69 PR came in ’15, just after his 7th at the Worlds. Bothered by a foot problem this year, he still managed a 13:15.28. “He’s still got it,” says Kincaid. “And he’s still got a crazy good kick, so I wouldn’t count him out either.”
Ben True: The Maine native may focus on the 10,000, a distance he has raced sparingly, or he may do both. With a 13:02.74 best (’14) and a 13:09.81 last year, he still has the speed to line up with the best in the shorter event, even if he will be 35 next summer. With the 5K first, he says, “I think this year you’ll see a lot more people doing both.”
Riley Masters: 6th-placer at last year’s nationals, the Oklahoma alum has U.S.-Ranked the last two years. He ran his career best of 13:16.97 at Stanford in ’18 and will be 31 next summer. A volunteer assistant at Colorado, he used his pandemic downtime to have surgery to correct a Haglund’s Deformity in his left foot.
The 5000 is not an event that is friendly to young talent, given the years it takes to build the base necessary to compete with the veterans. Most of the younger set has already been in the pro ranks for a year or more.
Grant Fisher: The Stanford alum ran a big PR of 13:11.68 over the summer and has been training alongside Lomong and Canada’s Moh Ahmed. He will be 24 at the Trials and Lomong thinks he will be a factor. “It’s incredible to see how mature he is,” says Lomong. “I see him as somebody who’s just going to improve. I tell him, ‘You have to go back to Canada [Fisher was born there] because I have a mortgage to pay here and you’re causing me too much stress.’ He’s going to take my position away from me one of these days.”
Sean McGorty: Another ex-Cardinal, McGorty has trained in tandem with Fisher for years. He edged him in their big PR race this summer, clocking a 13:11.22 that marked a significant comeback from a frightening bone infection. “He’s really, really talented,” admits Fisher. “It’s cool we’re in the same spot now.”
Drew Hunter: A former prep superstar, the Virginia native hasn’t hit the Olympic standard yet—his PR is 13:21.18, but his 7:39.85 best for 3K indicates he will be in the mix if he stays healthy. At 23, he is perhaps the youngest of the serious contenders, though he admits that he is not ready to say goodbye to the 1500 yet.
Among recent collegians, one of the most promising is Tyler Day, who for Northern Arizona clipped off a 13:16.95 American Collegiate Indoor Record in January. He will be 24 next summer.
Colorado alum Joe Klecker ran a best of 13:28.98 this summer and also produced a PR 3:37.55 at 1500. Now coached by Dathan Ritzenhein as part of the new On AC, he also will be 24 next summer. He’s expecting to make a “long buildup” for ’21.
When we talk about “active” runners who have made the standard, we mean “not retired”—but we can probably subtract a few from the mix who are solidly committed to other events.
For instance, Galen Rupp (12:58.90 ’12) is an Olympic and World finalist in the event, but hasn’t raced on the track for more than two years. It’s safe to assume that he is solidly focused on the Olympic marathon, for which he has already qualified.
Olympic 1500 champ Matthew Centrowitz rocked a massive 13:00.39 PR in ’19. Yet so far we’ve seen no indication that he is considering a serious plunge into the longer distance, especially since the potential 5000 field looks tougher than the 1500 (only 3 Americans have bettered the 3:35.00 standard there since ’17). Says teammate Kincaid, “If he were to move up to the 5000, I’d be surprised. I’m not saying it’s out of the question, but I’d be surprised.”
Evan Jager sports a nifty 13:02.40 PR from ’13, but assuming he’s healthy, he would have a near-lock in his steeplechase specialty, where he has made major international teams 5 times. (Trivia buffs will note that he made the World 5000 team in ’09, before he met the steeple.)
Andrew Bumbalough (13:12.01 ’13) hasn’t raced on the track since ’16. A confirmed roadie these days, he failed to finish the Trials Marathon. We wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the 10,000.
Shadrack Kipchirchir: With 13:08.25 chops at the 5K, the U.S. Army athlete can’t be discounted at the shorter distance, though his emphasis has been on the 10K in recent years. In both ’17 & ’19 he finished runner-up in the 10K and then made the top 10 at Worlds. Note that in ’16, however, he ran the 5000 at the Trials after making the team in the 25-lapper. With the 5000 first—and with his speed greatly improved—will he double again at age 32?
Chris Derrick: Another of the Nike Bowerman crew, Derrick will be 30 next summer. His PR of 13:08.04 dates all the way back to ’13. In ’17 he moved to the marathon, but a DNF in the Trials race after coming back from an ankle injury leaves him only track options if he wants to make an Olympic team. The 10K, where he finished 4th in the ’12 Trials and 5th in ’16, seems his most likely choice.
Consider Emmanuel Bor. With a 13:10.23 indoor PR from early ’19, he should be considered a threat should he try the event. A 27:41 road PR from last year raises the possibility that he will be just as likely in the 10,000.
What about Ben Blankenship? The Minnesota alum made the Olympic 1500 final in ’16 and has U.S.-Ranked in that event 4 times. Last year he ran a PR 13:33.07 in his first 5K since ’14. And at the end of this August, he surprised with a 10K appearance, producing a PR 28:08.20. Is he leaving the 1500 for longer races? “I like to keep all my options open, honestly,” he says. “We’ll take all that stuff into consideration and make the decision based on upcoming opportunities.”
The biggest outside threat is Edward Cheserek, better known as “King Ches” to many Duck fans. The Oregon alum—who ran a PR of 13:04.44 last year—still carries a Kenyan passport, despite talking extensively about trying to obtain U.S. citizenship. In January his agent indicated he had informed Athletics Kenya of his intent to try to make the Kenyan Olympic team because of the “uncertain timeline” for U.S. citizenship. Did the pandemic delay change those plans? In April his agent said they’ve been told not to say much, but that Ches “would really like to be a citizen at some point.” And would WA grant him a transfer of allegiance?
Whatever happens in our uncertain future, one can be sure that the future for our 5000 guys will be lively. Says Lomong, “We’ve got a lot of really young guys and obviously it’s going to be a tough fight… and only three can make the team.”
Schumacher notes, “You have to be of the ability to be a 13:0X guy and still have championship racing skills. You could say, what if it’s a 14-minute race and it all comes down to the last 200? Then you have to be a 13:40 guy with an amazing kick. But the majority of the time in championship-style races, there’s enough built in, whether it be fartleking during the race or out-hard, build up the fatigue. There’s all these different scenarios that you still have to have that high-end level of running in your body.
“I think that’s what it takes. You’re going to have to be a good championship runner, and I think you have to be a sub-13:10 guy.”
Whatever it takes to make the team, the more relevant fact is that the U.S. has no shortage of candidates to be in the mix. Chelimo’s Rio silver marked the first time an American had stepped on the Olympic podium since Bob Schul and Bill Dellinger in Tokyo more than 50 years earlier. Maybe we won’t have to wait a half-century for the next one.